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Wine as a status symbol?

2009 June 24
by Eric Hwang

First a little background on why this topic even popped into my head. Recently, a good friend of mine arranged for us and our wives to attend a progressive dinner at their country club. The Club, as I’ll call it here to avoid embarassment, is located across the main road from where they live and is actually another gated community of multi-million dollar homes similar to theirs.

20090705The only progressive dinners I’ve attended usually involve going from one person’s house to another—very casual affairs that usually involve a barbeque. This was a much more formal affair with a five-course dinner intended to be a mixer forcing people to mingle with neighbors within the community. The format had my friend and me sitting together with other men (our wives were also sitting together at a different table with other women) for the first two courses and then drawing out of a hat to determine which table we would sit at for the next course and finally, picking a table of your choice for the last two courses. It was an interesting format; I enjoyed the food and wine (pictured here), yet I felt like a fish out of water most of the night.

20090706My friend’s wife and I were probably the youngest people attending. I would guess that the median age was probably 60. The four of us were also the only minorities present, including the hired help. Add to that the difference in annual incomes, work and school backgrounds and it’s no wonder I had little in common to discuss. The conversation usually ended right after I said that I was a guest of someone who didn’t even live in this particular community.

20090707The fact that I had my big SLR camera and was taking pictures of the food and wine, did little to help appearances, which obviously mean a lot to these people. I made the best of it, keeping conversations light and offering opinions on the wonderful wine which my friend brought for the four of us to share. When I mentioned I had a blog and was twittering about tonight’s dinner, most everyone had no idea what I was talking about. That didn’t really surprise me.

20090708What was surprising for me was the lack of wine knowledge and appreciation amongst a group of people with the obvious means and time to learn more about wine. For many of them, wine was simply more bling, reflecting their social and economic status more than their taste in wine. From the conversations I heard, wine was like their house, their car or their country club membership—the more expensive or more prestigious the name, the better. It was amusing, yet disappointing, to hear them criticizing the Club’s Wine Director for offering less expensive wines on their wine list despite many of them being good wine. For them, price equated to quality and while this may hold true in most cases and can be a good basis for investment in wine, it’s no way to choose a wine for dinner. And certainly not how I approach wine.

20090709

Our wines for the evening. From the 1993 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rosé Reserve to the '04 Beaucastel CdP and '98 Chateau Beauregard, they were truly spectacular

At times, I like to brag about wines, but it’s usually telling people about the great wine I found for under $12, sort of like how some people brag about finding a bargain at the thrift store. If anything, I like to think of myself as the anti-snob. Occasionally I’ll write about how I was privileged to be able to taste an expensive fine wine such as the ones we had that evening. And perhaps, that’s what surprised my haughty table companions. I do have knowledge about wines, nothing extensive, but amongst the company I dined with, I felt like an outright expert.

I suppose I had high expectations for these people. After all, I have wine geek friends in their twenties whose palates are downright amazing. Given just the varietal, they can tell me region, producer and even vintage year. Okay, that’s an extreme example, but one that gives me great hope for Gen-Y. For some reason, I keep thinking that age brings experience and wisdom and I just expected people in their sixties to have a much better appreciation for wine than I found that night. Throughout the evening, I kept reminding myself that just because I’m a wine geek, not everyone else is.

Some people rely on point ratings for guidance, others ask their friends and the local wine store owner, and some of us rely more on our own palate and actually taste the wine. What I saw that night were people who base their purchases by price alone. I suppose if money were not a factor, you’re less likely to find a bad wine over $100 than most of the wines I buy for under $30. It’s a shame that for these people, wine is simply an indicator of affluence, because it makes it difficult for them to enjoy unless they know its value.

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